U.S. Isolated at G-20 as Gaza Crisis Worsens

AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
A relative of Matan Elmaliach, 26, reacts during his funeral in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. opposition to an immediate cease-fire in Gaza came under repeated criticism during a two-day meeting of the chief diplomats of the world’s 20 largest economies in the latest sign of Washington’s isolation on the issue.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, the host of this year’s annual Group of 20 gathering, began the meeting by decrying the “paralysis” at the United Nations Security Council, where Washington vetoed a third resolution for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza earlier in the week.

“This state of inaction results in the loss of innocent lives,” Vieira said.

The top diplomats at the gathering, which included Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, offered their views on various geopolitical issues in a session that was closed to the media so officials could express themselves more candidly.

But by mistake, a small group of journalists, including from The Washington Post, were able to listen in on the session because the audio headsets continued broadcasting the remarks, unbeknownst to the Brazilian hosts.

Australia, a close ally of the United States, supported an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and strongly warned about the “further devastation” that could result from Israel’s announced military campaign in the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter.

“We say again to Israel – do not go down this path,” said Australia’s representative, Katy Gallagher. “This would be unjustifiable.”

South Africa, which has accused Israel of carrying out a genocide in Gaza, a charge Israel strenuously denies, said world leaders had “allowed impunity to hold sway.”

“We have failed the people of Palestine,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation.

The accidentally broadcast remarks created a sharp contrast with the G-20 gathering in India last year, where Blinken sought to unite world powers in condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the time, Blinken found a more receptive audience when he invoked the United Nations Charter and the principles of sovereignty to criticize Moscow’s land grab.

But in Brazil, diplomats invoked those same principles to criticize the ongoing war in Gaza, where the United States has provided Israel political cover and billions of dollars’ worth of bombs and military equipment.

“If, for example, we had been united” behind the “principles set out in the U.N. Charter,” said South Africa’s representative, “the tragedy in Palestine will not have lasted over three months.”

Blinken told reporters on Thursday that despite strong disagreements on an immediate cease-fire, he viewed the G-20 as largely united when it comes to goals in the conflict.

“Everyone supports trying to reach a hostage agreement. Everyone supports having an extended humanitarian cease-fire. … Everyone supports finding a way to end the conflict,” he said.

“There may be differences over over tactics … but we’re trying to focus on actually getting results,” Blinken added.

But analysts said the contrast between Washington’s global standing from one year to the next was stark.

“A year ago, the U.S. had Russia on the back foot over Ukraine,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group. “Now the Biden administration looks like it is losing its grip on events in Ukraine and Gaza, and could lose its grip on the November elections too.”

Among Latin American countries, the United States received a rare reprieve during the remarks by Argentina, whose recently-elected libertarian leader, Javier Milei, is staunchly pro-Israel.

While acknowledging that the conflict has caused a “humanitarian disaster,” Argentina’s representative condemned the “terrorist acts of Hamas” and demanded the “unconditional release of hostages.”

U.S. officials said they remained focused on working toward Brazil’s goals for the G-20, including coordination on labor practices, climate change and food security. They said they hoped that differences over Gaza would not derail those efforts, but comments from Brazil’s president days before Blinken’s arrival comparing the killing of Palestinians in Gaza to the genocide of Jews during World War II provided another obstacle.

During the top U.S. diplomat’s meeting Wednesday with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Blinken “made clear that we disagree with those comments,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive hour-and-a-half discussion between the two leaders. “I would say the two had a frank exchange.”

As president of Latin America’s most populous country and host of the G-20, Lula has taken on an outsize role as a voice of the developing world when it comes to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, in both cases criticizing Washington’s opposition to an immediate cease-fire.

In the meeting, Blinken made clear his view that the United States did not support an immediate cease-fire because it would leave Hamas in place to repeat attacks against Israel, said the senior official.

U.S. intelligence officials say Israel’s forces have significantly degraded Hamas’s capabilities but estimate that they are not close to eliminating the group after more than 100 days of war and nearly 30,000 Palestinians killed, according to figures from Gaza’s health ministry. The assault began Oct. 7 after Hamas fighters invaded southern Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostage.

Lula weighed in Sunday on the large number of civilian casualties in the war, accusing Israel of carrying out a “genocide” and comparing it to “when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media that Lula was “trivializing” the Holocaust and “trying to harm the Jewish people and Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Blinken relayed to Lula U.S. efforts to broker a deal between Hamas and Israel that would see the release of prisoners in exchange for a humanitarian pause in fighting and an increase in humanitarian aid.